Full Metal Jacket (1987) is an astonishing, hard-t0-shake Vietnam movie, one that’s essentially two separate stories smashed together. Director Stanley Kubrick, working from Gustav Hasford’s autobiographical novel The Short-Timers, turns in one of his most effective films. Full Metal Jacket is mesmerizing, sick, terrifying, and funny. It lingers in the brain like a sickness, or a joke that you understand more fully with the passage of time.
I should point out that I’ve never expected to like the films of Stanley Kubrick. It’s probably my hero worship of Pauline Kael, who panned every Kubrick film after Lolita. But ever since watching Barry Lyndon last year, I’ve discovered a real love of Kubrick’s work that makes me feel slightly shameful, perhaps because he seems like a pretentious person’s filmmaker. Barry Lyndon was surprisingly hard to shake off, as was Eyes Wide Shut, and Full Metal Jacket joins them as one of my personal favorite Kubrick films.
The movie opens with a montage of boys—young and dumb, about to be sent to basic training—getting their hair buzzed off by clippers. Then the film cuts to a basic training facility where we’re pummeled by the craftily vulgar screams of relentless drill sergeant Lee Ermey, whose performance is the prototype for the kind of asshole-power-monsters we see in movies like Whiplash (the one where J.K. Simmons plays an asshole of a music teacher, who delights in the aggressive humiliation of his students). I felt more than a little sadistic laughing at the horrifying jeers of Ermey’s character: he berates his grunts with such unmitigated, tenacious fervor that it’s hard not to laugh, until you realize the chilling effect his torment as on one particular young man, the incompetent “Pyle” (Vincet D’Onofrio), who can’t seem to do anything right, and who becomes the pariah of the group when Ermey starts punishing the other guys for his blunders. Watching Pyle lose it is truly one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen in a movie.
When people talk about Vietnam movies, they often obsess over the authenticity of it. Every time I turn around, someone’s telling me about the 2002 film We Were Soldiers, and how that film is the most authentic of all the Vietnam movies, according to the men who actually put their boots to the ground. That may be the case. (I wouldn’t begin to know.) But Full Metal Jacket, whether it perfectly nails an authentic depiction of the war or not, is one of the most jarring, powerful movies about war that I’ve ever seen. Kubrick of course criticizes the politics of the war, as is to be expected, but his criticism transcends the political in showing us just how much the war dehumanizes people.
Of course, the most powerful example of dehumanization happens in basic training, not in combat. It’s D’Onofrio’s transition to madness which stays with us most. The second act, which offers a well-staged descent into a war-torn town where a handful of soldiers face off against a hidden sniper, is tense and extremely well-made, even though it lacks the emotional weight of the first half. It’s still powerful, and when you consider both halves of the film together, you can sense the layers of the war as they happened to the individual soldiers, for whom basic training was a world unto itself, a place where a new identity—the identity of a nationally-vindicated killer—was forged under the auspices of protecting the American way of life.
With Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood, and Kevyn Major Howard. Written by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford.